Distinguished women, past and present: Fatima is Fatima
This is a part of a lecture at the University of Toronto for CIRA 2001, April 2001
By: Massoume Price
Allah revealed to Prophet Muhammad that he created the universe for him and because of him. He later told him that Muhammad himself was created because of Ali and at the end proclaimed that both and all was created because of Fatima (Hadith Ghodsi).
Fatima is a very important and central figure in Iranian Shiite. The literature dealing with her is secondary literature i.e. hadith, narratives, reports and is relatively substantial. It is often commented that such literature with respect to women is a mirror image of the misogynist attitudes in the Muslim countries and is used as a tool to reinforce such negative trends. There is literature of this kind associated with Fatima too. The most famous is the one she is quoted as saying, "the best thing for a woman is to stay at home and not to be seen by strange men" (Bukhari). However the bulk of the literature dealing with her is from a different class and a different story. The literature has depth, is multi dimensional and has an evolution. The earlier accounts are biographical, Ibn Hisham in his biography of Prophet Muhammad, the earliest records of his life and early Islam only mentions her. Bukhari has more information but again she is only mentioned. As of 10th century with the appearance of several minor and a couple of major pro-Shiite dynasties, Fatamid of Egypt and Buyeh of Iran, her image gradually but eventually drastically changes. Fatamid claim descent from Fatima and it is during Buyeh period that for the first time public mourning for Imam Hussein is performed in Iran. From this time she becomes more of a Saint and less of a person. Sixteenth century and the coming of Safavid dynasty and Majlesi’s colossal work ‘Oceans of Light’ completed her transformation into a major Saint with a number of titles each a manifestation of one of her saintly attributes and more.
She is divine in origin and several variations of a major hadith describe how she was conceived on the night of Meraj (ascension). On this night Gabriel took Muhammad to Jerusalem and then to Heaven. While up in Heaven, he was offered some heavenly fruit, the seed of which was responsible for her conception, after Prophet’s arrival at home on the same night and making love to his beloved Khadija. This story is important and has become a point of departure between Sunni and Shiite with respect to her age. Following Shiite account since she was conceived on this night she lived for only 18 years. While Sunni believe she was born five years before revelation and as a result she is 10 years older.
She is called Zahra, the radiant one, a universal motif and a characteristic of all saints. She is also called Batul, meaning virgin. She is Queen of mankind and is compared to Mary and is called Maryam and like Mary she is Queen of Heaven. She is the first woman who will enter the paradise and all those who accompany her or have prayed to her will also enter paradise and their sins will be forgiven, she is their shafes and protector. She is mohadatheh, the one who talks and is in contact with angles. In fact angles are at her service. Archangel Gabriel representing the Holy Ghost praises her at her incredible wedding in heaven and angles assist her when she is giving birth to her children and are present at her deathbed.
She is pure (tahereh), sinless and becomes one of the 14 innocents and one of the holy five (panj tan). She is a major archetype with her own cult. There are prayers for her and a major all female feast, sofreh hazrat i zahra, is still very popular with Muslim women. Sofreh feasts are Zoroastrian in origin and are mainly practiced by Iranians.
On another level she is central to the doctrine of martyrdom and though her son is the major character she is not marginalized. She is made pre-existence and almost immortal. The holy five were created from divine rays of light at the beginning of the time and she knows her children will be massacred and her husband will be assassinated right from this time. She understands that this is her mission and God’s design for her. The long gone ancient Prophets sympathize and angles cry with her. She sobs and mourns over her beloved son’s slain body as a distressed mother and is present at all the passion plays even though she had died fifty years earlier before the tragedy of Kerbela.
Yet at another level she is the fighter and the defender of the true faith and justice. After her fathers’ death the power struggle starts, her family representing the true faith, the pure and the holy blood is pushed aside. It is her speech that stirs, accuses and reveals all that is wrong and how deviations will happen with the greedy leaders who will change the course of Islam for ever and for worse. At the domestic level she is the loyal daughter, the devoted wife, the caring mother and a symbol of endurance. Such themes have been used for centuries to project her image as that of the ideal Muslim woman. The one who will not hesitate to sacrifice all including herself for the sake of her family and the true fate.
Her image since Safavid times has changed little with one exception, Ali Shariati’s famous book and the best seller ‘Fatima is Fatima’. Shariati, a sociologist educated in France and extremely popular in Iran since the 1970’s, had his own vision of Islam and societies in general. West represented corruption, imperialism, capitalism and commercialization. The Muslim east had a glorious past but had deteriorated in the hands of authoritarian kings and opportunist clergy. The Pahlavi dynasty had created a class of women with no identity, distorted, doll like, copycats and totally cut off from their origins, heritage and fate. The good Muslim women had become confused and disoriented. They did not want to be like their mothers but they did not know what they wanted or who they were. Shariati presented his ideal woman, Fatima as a role model for such women. However his version of the Queen of Heaven is devoid of her sainthood and divine attributes. Fatima was human, a real person but a unique women. By her own will and sound judgement she had chosen to be loyal, devoted, compassionate and ready to sacrifice herself for her family and the true fate. All women in Iran should follow the same example and be like her, an object of sacrifice. This image was taken up by the women during the revolution and is abandoned and critically questioned by most women two decades after the Islamic revolution. Shariati’s image is one-dimensional, devoid of saintly attributes and historically inaccurate. His analysis of west and east is also too simple, incorrect and reductionism at its’ best.
The Islamic Republic has kept all these images. They have preserved her sainthood and at the same time have politicized her as Shariati did. Her birthday is the Mother’s Day in Iran and she is constantly presented as the ideal woman and the role model. However there is one difference. A number of Muslim women writers are emerging with their own understanding of Fatima. Their interpretations are different from the traditional sources of literature such as Bukhari, Koleini, Shaykh Tousi, Ibn Babuyeh, Majlesi and Shariati.
This will eventually add a new dimension to the already complicated and multi-faceted image of Fatima, the cause of creation as stated in the major hadith above. In one such account a lady writer Alavieh Homayouni in her book called ‘Love’ about Fatima and Ali makes a very interesting observation. When she talks about the Hadith ghodsi mentioned at the beginning, she remarks that "maybe Fatima is the cause of creation because she is a woman and a life giver". This is practically saying that a male sovereign god (Allah) created all for the sake of a female deity who is the source of all life. The statement is well in tune with the old creation myths popular in ancient Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean world and is a well-established feminist account of creation myths.
Reviewing the literature about her presents a very complicated image and signifies her importance as a divine female. Why was she so important? Her significance in Safavid times and present-day Iran is understandable. However some of the major stories and the imagery are very old and may be even older than her. Her image is too grand and too complicated and is not proportional to her function as a blood link. Such extreme veneration for her reminds one of the ancient cultural practices of venerating female deities so popular in the area before Islam. The literature that compares her to Mary comes from previously Christian territories like Egypt. It is possible that her cult might have replaced Anahita’s cult at least in Iranian territories. There is a story in the traditional literature that is not used or quoted because it is so odd. Anahita the very popular female deity protector of all waters baths in a river walks out and she is pregnant with the saviour and the Messiah who will save the world. Fatima baths in a river too, comes out and is pregnant with Imam Hussein. Anahita’s influence amazingly survived till 19th century. Part of her image stayed all the way to the Islamic republic. Her beast lion and her crest sun was a national emblem and on the Iranian flag till the Islamic revolution.
In the ancient imagery Anahita is on the lion and inside the sun. After Islam she was eliminated, but the lion and the sun survived. Eventually lion came to represent Ali Fatima’s husband holding his sword zulfaghar. Well into 19th century when water reservoirs were still built they had a stone lion outside. The same practice as the ancient times when Anahita protected the waters and most traditional bathhouses had water faucets in shape of a lion’s head. There were rites of protection for the newborn, these involved water rituals reminiscent of ancient rites for Anahita who also was the protector of fetus and women’s womb. When women were delivering babies they asked for help by shouting Ya Zahra as they would with Anahita in earlier times. It appears that veneration for ancient female deities continued after Islam with Fatima replacing the more ancient ones. This might explain why Fatima is so goddess like in a religion where there is little space for a feminine side to the divinity.